Four years later, as journalism organizations race to find new remedies for a painful revenue drought, crowdsourcing is spreading into news organizations in myriad ways.
Beyond blogging, readers are gathering data, opening doors to fresh information sources, and in some cases, starting competitive or collaborative sites of their own. In so doing, they’re converting community building from an afterthought into a key strategy for forward-looking news outlets.
One of the primary ideas that emerged over the course of a two-day Poynter conference on user content and crowdsourcing last week was that cultivating reader participation is not just about telling more stories with fewer resources. Nor is it just about users offering commentary or neighborhood news.
It’s about cultivating fundamentally new kinds of stories and capitalizing more efficiently on the expertise and passions of the people formerly known as the audience. Here are five of the conference’s key takeaways.
Structure is Crucial
Crowdsourcing is more science than sorcery, said Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of Distributed Reporting. Carefully crafting a call to action is the key to getting readers to participate in news gathering.
Throwing out a blind call for tips or ideas may yield an occasional gem, but Michel’s experience, with the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus campaign coverage — and in several recent projects at ProPublica — demonstrates that targeted questions tend to yield more fruitful data that can be sifted, mapped and analyzed as part of a reporter’s fact-gathering process.
Make it Easy
Michel advised news organizations to make it as simple as possible for readers to participate in ways that are relevant and meaningful. Draw on participants’ specific experience and expertise, she says. Stay in touch with them. Share their characteristics in a database to draw on when needed. ProPublica recently asked readers to help reporter Paul Kiel gather information about the mortgage crisis.
Those who had sought a mortgage modification were invited to fill out a quick form on the site expressing interest. To lower the barrier to participation, the initial step required just the reader’s name, e-mail address and ZIP code. Filling out that brief form got the ball rolling. Eventually, more than 800 participants answered a series of questions, providing valuable data about their experiences navigating the mortgage system. Their answers, anecdotes and insights planted the seeds for multiple stories.
In the midst of his launch week heading up Honolulu start-up CivilBeat.com, former Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple said his long career had taught him the value of building a vibrant community founded on constructive conversation. “People are drawn to the idea that they can have a dialogue in a place that’s not a sludge pit,” Temple told conference participants during a Skype video chat three days after the site debuted.
He said having the entire staff of 12 start on the same day enabled Civil Beat to begin with an internal culture of openness to parallel the site’s community focus. “We have to be able to disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.
Watch Your Language
Labels matter in the eyes of the law. That was evident in a presentation by Alison Steele, an attorney who has represented Poynter and the Poynter-owned St. Petersburg Times. Sites that draw heavily on reader contributions have to pay close attention to legal nuances that govern how contributors/volunteers/members are treated. Something as subtle as how an organization refers to its participating readers could make a significant difference in those participants’ legal standing.
Inviting readers to be “members” of a site and to contribute to data gathering may be more legally secure if you classify those readers as “sources.” Using titles that blur the line between readers and employees is asking for trouble down the road. For example, news organizations that ask readers to provide, without compensation, work similar to that provided by paid employees may find themselves in conflict with IRS and other government regulations.
The Crowd Can Measure Quality
In addition to leading voices from within the fourth estate, the conference also spotlighted crowdsourcing approaches from leaders of non-traditional and international outlets. Helium CEO Mark Ranalli described his content aggregation site as the world’s largest editorial community. More than 160,000 writers have contributed 1.8 million pieces to Helium over the past three years.
Peer writers rate articles up or down, and Ranalli says a growing number of journalism sites are buying the best of the articles to fill gaps in their coverage. It’s not about replacing journalists, but supplementing them, he says, though some fear that the broad availability of cheap, aggregated content may curtail opportunities for professional journalists.
As journalism draws in a growing number of citizen participants, new resources are surfacing to address the crowdsourcing boom. A new role has emerged, for instance, for conduits between news organizations and bloggers and other members of the so-called Fifth Estate. John Wilpers of the Innovation Media Consulting Group spoke about the mutual benefits of the blogger-news organization partnerships. (Click here to see Wilpers’ slides.)
J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer described her organization’s support for several initiatives by news organizations to incorporate local bloggers in their news reports. (Click here to see Schaffer’s slides.)
Susan Karol of the Suburban Newspapers of America Association described research tracking reader attitudes toward content submitted by other readers. (Click here to see Karol’s slides.)
In addition, Howard Finberg, Poynter’s director of Interactive Learning, announced a new online certificate program for journalism training to supplement its extensive and constantly updated NewsU curriculum. The program enables journalism newcomers to develop and demonstrate a grounding in the basic skills and values of news.
Crowdsourcing remains very much in beta mode in the journalism world.
Experiments are common, but standard practices are still taking shape. Here are a few issues the journalism world has yet to iron out.
How will legal authorities categorize claims against news sites from disgruntled reader-contributors dissatisfied with their authorial designation, their compensation, or the use of their intellectual property?
To what extent will aggregated content sites (such as Helium, Demand Media and Associated Content) change the business landscape for professional writers?
In Jeff Howe’s presentation on the roots of crowdsourcing, he cited the dramatic impact of iStockPhoto.com on market prices for professional stock photography. (Click here to see Howe’s slides.) Will professional writers see rates similarly bottom out?
For Poynter’s curated list of stories about crowdsourcing — including background articles, best practices spotlights and pieces about cutting-edge projects — visit Poynter Library Director David Shedden’s comprehensive collection, the Future of User-Generated Content, in Poynter’s Transformation Tracker.
Add Your Own Input
In place of our regular comments, we’ve created an experimental crowdsourced online forum to encourage responses to this story and the sharing of relevant links and information. The forum is built with drop.io, which is a useful tool for all sorts of crowdsourcing projects. (Click here for my description of drop.io and suggestions for using it.)
Got a local or national story in mind that’s calling out for crowdsourcing? Share it in the forum, where you can also view links from this article and slides presented during the conference. You can also add content to the forum by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or add a voice comment by calling 646-495-9205 x 48949.